I just finished No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan. Itâ€™s one of those books that I feel compelled to read with a pen handy, in order to substitute, perhaps, for arguing points with the author.
Iâ€™ve been on the lookout for a good â€˜intro to Islamâ€™ that I could keep around the office for reference, but Iâ€™m not sure this one qualifies. Aslan is a fine writer, though his personal beliefs intrude, making the book much less scholarly or philosophical than Iâ€™d like. As much as I emphasize with and even prefer his version of Islamâ€™s origins, as it justifies the possibility of a modern liberal state based on an Islamic framework, I have never finished a book and felt compelled to write a rebuttal to it on the last page, until this one. I kept putting my pen down and picking it back up.
Perhaps I am just getting increasingly cranky. I donâ€™t think so, however. Aslan states early on that he is going to tell the â€™storyâ€™ of Islam rather than claim any historical accuracy, via â€˜reasonable interpretationâ€™. Furious scribbling on my part ensued. How can you champion reason and throw historical accuracy out the door? If you want to argue about the meaning of stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey are just as good subjects. Religious texts like the Quran are more than myths, more than stories – they insist, for millions of believers, on being literal truth. A discussion about Mohammedâ€™s life and message shouldnâ€™t avoid historical accuracy; it should begin there. Otherwise, all this idealistic talk about emulating the real ideal of
The traditions of Mohammedâ€™s life seem to me just as hazy as the ones that depict Jesus, with numerous, conflicting traditions and transmission histories – that haziness should be embraced rather than avoided, deemed irrelevant, or cherry-picked to make a point, as Aslan does more than once.
On page 21, Aslan says, â€œIt is not important whether the stories describing the childhood of Muhammad, Jesus, or Davis are true,â€ and then states their rhetorical/theological message is more important. Ok, whatever. But then, referring directly back to the irrelevancy of whether those stories are true, he says, â€œEven so, when combined with what is known about pre-Islamic Arabian society, one can glean important historical information from these traditions.â€
Well, if it isnâ€™t important if the stories are true, then how can you justify certain parts of them are accurate? This is a common move on his part, alas. Overall, he is quite open minded, but like a lot of theologically minded folks Iâ€™ve read while trying to figure out Christian metaphors in the last half-year or so, he shies away very quickly from interrogating the foundation of his religion. There is no question for him that Muhammad existed, the various stories about him have historical underpinnings, that the Quran was transmitted through him from God (although heâ€™s willing to note that the hadith have a strange, corruptible transmission), and we have a pretty accurate picture of
Now I would agree with him that the ideal
I also have a bone to pick about 262â€™s â€œAs recognized nearly two hundred years by Alexis de Tocqueville, religion is the foundation of Americaâ€™s political system.â€ and the discussion of plurality that follows, as it smells of over-simplification of both de Tocqueville and the founding of the U.S., but thatâ€™s minor, and I think I ranted about that subject last week. The book succeeded in making me think and write a bit on here – thatâ€™s always good.